Diversifying The Lifeguard Applicant Pool
The Aquatics program in Phoenix is trying to recruit lifeguards that better reflect the communities where they work. (Photo courtesy of Becky Hulett)
March 12, 2013

PHOENIX -- It may still be winter in most of the country, but here in Phoenix it's almost swimming weather.

And that means a new crop of teenagers are training to be lifeguards. It’s a job that’s typically been filled by high school swim team athletes, many of whom are white. But now the city is now trying to diversify that classic summer job.

In late January, staff from the Phoenix Aquatics program visited Alhambra High School, which is almost 95 percent minority.

Staff members Kelly Martinez and Melissa Boyle were there to entice students there to try out to become lifeguards.

None of the half dozen students who gathered to hear their pitch are on the school swim team, because Alhambra doesn’t have one.

Boyle was aware of this.

“As long as you can get from one end to the pool to the other with the tube and then without the tube, we will work with you in your swimming abilities,” Boyle said.

She did not sugarcoat the tougher parts of the job.

“Blood, poop and vomit — you guys are going to be the rookies, you guys are going to be the first years, you are going to have to clean that up.”

But the teens were not discouraged. The job pays well, more than $11 an hour, and they are aware that employers eager to hire teens are few and far between.

Martinez took on the delicate task of explaining why they are targeting inner-city schools like this one for recruitment, and the scenario they are trying to correct.

“We want the community lifeguards to be from that community,” Martinez said. “And quit having it that the kids in the pool are all either Hispanic or Black or whatever and every lifeguard is white. We don't like that, the kids don't relate, there’s language issues.”

Martinez turned to a Latina student next to her.

“Do you speak Spanish?”

The student nodded.

“See, awesome,” Martinez said. “We need more lifeguards who can speak Spanish.”

Competitive swimming is still a predominantly white sport. A study released in 2010 by USA Swimming and the University of Memphis found minorities reported lower swimming ability compared to whites.

Becky Hulett, who supervises Aquatics for the City of Phoenix, said groups across the country are worried about how to broaden interest in swimming, and the lack of lifeguards from different backgrounds.

“We read in aquatic newsletters and magazines, there’s articles saying — you know, we as an industry are failing in this," Hulett said. "And how do we accomplish making lifeguards more diverse?”

So when Hulett found out she would need to increase lifeguarding staff from 330 to 500 due to eight pools reopening in the summer of 2012, she made a conscious decision to rethink recruitment. Traditionally, Phoenix’s lifeguards didn’t come from the city’s low income neighborhoods that house many of the community pools.

“It really populated from schools that had swim teams,” Hulett said. “And so that was our feeder to our lifeguarding programs. The high school swimmer.”

That’s now changing due to Hulett’s efforts.

Photo by Jude Joffe-Block
Prospective lifeguards from under-represented high schools received scholarships to attend a lifeguard certification course in March.

At a recent lifeguard certification course, all the students were recruited from high schools that have not traditionally been feeders for lifeguard jobs in the past. About three quarters of the students in attendance were minorities.

The students who pass the four-day class and a final test can apply to become city lifeguards.

As the teens swam laps, it was clear many hadn’t had much formal training. But the coaches of the course weren’t fazed, and were prepared to put in the time to teach.

“Honestly, I have a little bit a fear of the water, and I wanted to overcome that fear,” said Jesus Jimenez, a junior at Washington High School.

Jimenez didn’t grow up going to pools, but likes the idea of lifeguarding.

“It is nice to have the satisfaction of knowing that if someone is in trouble you can save them at any time,” Jimenez said.

Over the past two years, the city raised about $15,000 dollars in scholarships to offset the $75 lifeguard certification course fee for more than 200 outreach students, including Jimenez and Showna Wells.

Wells, a senior at Alhambra, has also noticed a lack of diversity in the lifeguard chair.

“I've never really seen someone black like me,” said Wells, who identifies as African-American and also has Panamanian heritage.

Wells said lifeguarding never occurred to her as an option before she got the opportunity to take the certification class.

“Like I would never have thought, like 'Oh yeah, I will be a lifeguard,' you know?” Wells said. “I never would have thought it, probably McDonald's, but not a lifeguard.”

Wells will find out early next month if she got a job.

The Phoenix public pools are scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend.